Assad's Lionesses: the female last line in the battle for Syria

New women recruits will free up soldiers to fight rebels and give regime  a psychological boost

Beirut

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has recruited a brigade of women to man checkpoints and carry out security  operations as he attempts to free up soldiers in his beleaguered army to fight the rebels.

Dressed in fatigues and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, the female recruits – the “Lionesses for National Defence” – are part of a new paramilitary force. They have already been deployed in Homs, where they have been spotted guarding areas where residents still largely support the regime. Videos from both opposition and pro-government sites purport to show members of the all-female unit in action.

The women are part of the recently formed National Defence Force (NDF), which appears to be a key component of the Syrian state’s counter insurgency strategy. The regime is struggling to gain the upper hand in the street battles that have devastated large areas of the country’s cities and killed thousands of its soldiers. Rebels are holed up in several neighbourhoods of Homs and the capital’s southern suburbs.

Abu Rami, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Commission in Homs, first saw the female recruits about five days ago at Tadmour Circle on the outskirts of an Alawite area, before another activist returned to film them. The shaky video, which appears to have been filmed secretly, shows around half a dozen armed women guarding a major intersection.

“I was very surprised, it’s the first time we have seen this,” he said. “I think it’s an excuse to make the FSA [Free Syrian Army] kill women and then show the world as propaganda, but anyone with a weapon is a legitimate target.”

He said the women were also seen in the Wadi al-Dahab area, where some 500 recruits are reported to be receiving training at a military base.

In scenes reminiscent of parades by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s female bodyguards, a video uploaded on to a pro-regime YouTube channel at the beginning of the month shows about a hundred women marching in front of a portrait of the president. The NDF, which includes male recruits, is expected to have 10,000 members.

Waleed al-Fares, a Homs-based  activist, described the new group as “just the Shabiha with a different name”, referring to the notorious, largely Alawite pro-Assad militias.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims  it will also include an elite fighting force trained by Iran. The Islamic Republic, a staunch ally of Damascus, has admitted its Quds Force is helping the Syrian regime in an advisory role.

An NDF Facebook page lists its operations – a post praises its men for supporting the army in “cleansing” the Damascus suburb of Daraya, where it is trying to destroy rebel hideouts. But as well as freeing up the army for military operations, the force gives the regime a psychological boost.

“Assad needs people to be militants at this point,” said Emile Hokayem, a Syria expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s not just a matter of operations on the ground and needing more bodies – he also needs society and his community to be mobilised, to keep up morale.”

But as the conflict becomes increasingly multifaceted, some doubt a negotiated settlement can be reached. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the notion was “unimaginable”.

Girl power: The women of war

Though war may traditionally be the preserve of men, history has thrown up its fair share of female warriors, from Boudica, the Celtic queen who led an uprising against the Roman Empire, to Joan of Arc, burnt at the stake at age 19 after leading France to several victories in the Hundred Years’ War.

In World War One, the Soviet Union created the “Women’s Battalion of Death”, made up of around 2,000 recruits who fought the June Offensive against Germany in 1917. Then there was Colonel Gaddafi’s Amazonian Guard – hand-picked bodyguards, all heavily made up and sworn virgins.

Syria’s Lionesses are not currently involved in combat, but the Levant has seen both Christian and Muslim women fighting on the frontline in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions